By Edith de Belleville

Living in the Shadow of the Perfect Parisian Woman

For centuries, normal Parisian women have had to live up to the legacy of the perfect French woman. Edith de Belleville unites the past and the present in her exploration of the Parisian myth.

Being refined in the 17th century meant to be elegant…and slim as well. France created, in the image of Louis XIV, self-theatralisation outside the home. The court at Versailles became a permanent theater where one had to always present oneself. The same theater still exists for the French on the streets of Paris. And being elegant means fashion.

So the French developed their passion for fashion. No surprise that the first fashion magazine, Le Mercure Galant, debuted in Paris in 1672. This newspaper was more popular in Europe than Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. If you glance at the sophisticated French ladies in Le Mercure Galant, you will notice that the French woman of the Great Century was not only a fashion victim, but was also slim. No doubt that being lithe even in the 17th century was more elegant than being fat. —From The Impossible Legacy of the Perfect Parisian Woman (part one) by Edith de Belleville.

The Parisian woman is not just the cold image of a fragile and chic fashion plate on high heels. Being Parisian is a behavior in life. The unique, violent, and bloody history of Paris built the soul of the Parisian who has a strong personality and is proud of the beloved city she fought for.

The Parisian woman is outspoken. She can be cheeky and rebellious like the singers Edith Piaf and Juliette Greco. She can be bourgeois and conservative like the actresses Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant. She is witty, lively, and hates the idea of perfection because perfection is boring. So instead of trying to be perfect, the Parisian woman expresses her own personality, thanks to her unique fashion style and her attitude in life.

In the 19th century before the invention of photography, there were the French painters. The French impressionists, who were Parisians, promoted the iconic image of the Parisian woman all over the world. Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas painted the elegant and solemn Parisian woman from the French bourgeoisie. One can admire her, wearing a fantastic dress from the first haute-couture designer, the British but very Parisian Worth. The Impressionists also represented the fresh and happy working class Parisian woman, who had fun on the weekend near the Seine River. Parisian women fascinated Edouard Manet. He painted many alluring and proud Parisian women. Thanks to this talent, we discover a beautiful hat, the delicate multi-colored fabric of a silk dress, shining gloves and ribbons. And of course Manet suggests the very tight corset of this elegant woman who has a tiny, sexy waist. Paintings: La femme au Perroquet 1868, La femme au Balcon 1868, Le chemin de fer 1873).

Even French writers created the glory of the Parisian woman. The hero of Emile Zola’s novels, Octave Mouret has a unique goal in life: to conquer the Parisienne, Zola wrote: “The Parisian women is a touristic attraction as the Eiffel Tower.” (Pot-Bouille, by Emile Zola (1882). Honoré de Balzac, the famous French writer declared, “The toilet is the society’s expression, the toilet is a science, a habit, an art and a feeling.” (La toilette est l’expression de la société, la toilette est tout à la fois un art, une science, une habitude et un sentiment). In 1900, on top of the big door of the international exhibition in Paris, there was a huge statute of a graceful Parisian woman to welcome foreign visitors. And who could forget the incredible Parisian aristocrat of the Belle Époque, the very chic, snobbish and beautiful Oriane, duchess de Guermantes, described so well by Marcel Proust in his book In Search of Lost Time (à la recherche du temps perdu)? The model for this fascinating woman was the very Parisian, handsome, elegant, refined, and eccentric Comtesse de Greffulhe who mesmerized Marcel Proust. Her inimitable style and personality inspired the best haute-couture designers in Paris. She remains so alive in our memories that in November 2015, the fashion museum of Paris, le palais Galliera will organize an exhibition just about her.

Then arrived the roaring twenties and its mythical Parisians. Coco Chanel, who created the little black dress, and set women free with her revolutionary designs and modern clothes. Kiki de Montparnasse was the charismatic muse of the best artists of the 1920s. These two famous ladies became the symbol of the free Parisian woman, who chooses her life and her loves.

In the 1960s, French actresses, the blond Brigitte Bardot and the brunette Jeanne Moreau, created the image of the French woman full of charm, sex appeal, and personality.

In May 2015, the iconic Parisian woman, Inès de La Fressange, was featured in the French newspaper Elle to give her secrets of style. The French elected her in 2009 as the most symbolic image of la Parisienne. She even wrote a book Parisian Chic: A Style Guide, which has been a bestseller. She said that she wrote this book because she was tired of trying to answer the same questions posed by journalists, What are your beauty and style secrets? Inès de La Fressange is 57 years old, very tall, extremely slim, and androgyne. She has been a top model for Chanel since 1977. She is clearly not a spring chicken, and there are many French top-models and French famous actresses who are much younger and sexier than her. However, for the French, she is the symbol of the Parisan woman, because she is friendly and outspoken. She has personality, humor, and wit. She is very stylish, but never too sophisticated. The modern Parisian woman follows what her great and inspiring female ancestors did before her, enjoying the art of living, being elegant and unique.

I was curious to know what was the opinion of the foreigner women about the French and the Parisan woman. So I searched the Internet for the Parisian woman.

I read articles that repeated what I had seen in books written by female American authors. But I also discovered many articles written by North American women explaining why it was a bad idea for American women to follow the example of the French woman. They explained that if French women are so thin, it is because France is a sexist country who demands of its women to be slim in order to please French men. And these Anglophone writers concluded that it was better to be a chubby American woman who wore sweatpants, but who was free, than a fragile, thin French woman who exists under the dictatorship of slimness.

They are not wrong. French women are slim. They are the slimmest in Europe.

In October 2013, a study from L’INED published in Population et Sociétés showed that among 13 European countries, the French woman is the lightest of the Europeans…but the French woman wants to lose the most weight. It is true that there is a strong social pressure in France to be slim. However, I’m sorry to disappoint some North American women, but my French female friends and I are not slim to please our French lovers.

We are slim to please ourselves. Don’t you think it may be good for your ego as well as your mental and physical health to be thin? French women are as feminist as their American sisters, but they don’t show it in the same way. It is again another cultural difference.

There are many books written by Anglo-Saxons about the French diet to explain the French paradox. Why are the French so slim, when they eat bread and butter, croissants, meals with rich sauce, caloric cheeses, delicious French pastries, and drink wine?

The link between the French and their food is cultural too. The refined French people from the 18th century thought that food is like love, an important part of the pleasure of life.

Plus, it is a question of education. French children are taught to taste all kinds food. In French schools (for kids from 5 to 18 years old), a dietician designs the meals that students eat each day for lunch. The menu developed by the school is always posted outside the building, so parents know what their kids will eat. If you walk by a French school, have a look at the menu. You’ll discover that the school’s lunch menu is a miracle that I’m not able to recreate at home. I’m not sure that the French kids who eat leeks at the canteens don’t prefer to eat French fries. But they have to taste the leeks…at least once.

Plus, for 26 years, each French school has hosted the week of the taste (la semaine du goût). Many French chefs, including the famous French gastronomic journalist Jean-Luc Petitrenaud, created the event. Each year, in October, teachers and French chefs, teach children to discover new foods and new tastes.

In October 2014 a law was created by French deputies to forbid ketchup in French schools because of the large amounts of sugar in this popular sauce. Our neighbors, the British, have been very upset that the French children are no longer allowed to add ketchup to their food. But few people in France were annoyed by this dietetic rule, and it was accepted because ketchup is unhealthy and hides the real taste of food.

French women probably don’t get fat because they have a better relationship with food than American women. The French don’t consider food as an enemy, but a friend. Cafés and restaurants are an institution in France.

The history of French literature was made in French cafés. In the 18th century, the many cafés of the Palais Royal were the place of the social life in Paris. Imagine Sartre and de Beauvoir writing in front of their café-crème in the mythical Café de Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. You cannot imagine Simone de Beauvoir walking in the Parisian street with her café-latte in a Starbuck’s cup. A French woman prefers to appreciate her coffee sitting in a café, and she takes time to enjoy a good meal.

French women are not better than American women. They are just different. And in a globalized world full of Zara, H&M, and Gap, it may be a good idea to be a different woman.

Part One: The Impossible Legacy of the Perfect Parisian Woman (part one) published on A Woman’s Paris®.

Acknowledgements: Alyssa Heitfeld, English, Media and Cultural Studies major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and Editing Intern with A Woman’s Paris.

Edith Belleville #3 cropp 197x300Edith de Belleville, a tour guide in Paris, is both French and Parisian to the core. She lectures about French culture in English on the last Friday of each month at the famous Café de la Mairie: 8, Place Saint-Sulpice. Born in Belleville close to the birthplace of Edith Piaf, but not of the same vintage. She studied law at the university of Sorbonne for five years and graduated with a post-graduate diploma in private law. Upon discovering her passion for languages she completed further studies in linguistics. This aligns well with her aptitude for conversation and, for Edith, any excuse to practice this art. Edith later qualified as a teacher of French at the university of Burgundy, which gave her the opportunity to exercise her appetite for both linguistics and Burgundy wines.

Edith moved back to Paris to teach French and French culture to both Chinese and English speakers alike. In addition, she speaks fluent Spanish. For more information about Edith de Belleville, visit: (Website) (

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Text copyright ©2015 Edith de Belleville. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©2015 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.